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The Democrats’ Majority Is Hanging By a Thread. They Don’t Seem to Care.

With its razor-thin margins in Congress and an aging caucus, why isn’t the party acting with more urgency to protect voting rights from Republican assault?

Sen. Chuck Schumer arrives with a cup of coffee to a news conference on the Capitol grounds.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

On Wednesday, after a speech that saw House Republicans quit the chamber in protest and a closed-door vote, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, a vociferous critic of the claim that President Biden stole November’s election, was removed from her post as Republican conference chair. We needn’t have sympathy for her or ignore her role in building the political climate she now decries to understand her ouster as a meaningful moment for the Republican Party. Speaking after a meeting with Biden at the White House, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy assured reporters that Biden’s legitimacy hadn’t been questioned by the party’s move. “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election,” he said. “I think that is all over with. We’re sitting here with the president today. So, from that point of view, I don’t think that’s a problem.”

That is a problem, actually, thanks to the effort McCarthy and other Republican leaders put into supporting President Trump’s lies in the wake of the election. Now, four months after the storming of the Capitol, Republicans in state legislatures around the country are pursuing restrictions to voting rights on the grounds that Biden’s victory was suspect and that Democrats can only win elections by fraud. And incredibly, Republicans in Arizona are still looking backward—the state of the recount effort there defies description. “There’s an accusation,” election “auditor” John Brakey said last week, “that 40,000 ballots were flown in to Arizona, and it was stuffed into the box, and it came from the southeast part of the world, Asia. And what they’re doing is to find out whether there’s bamboo in the paper.”

As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent argued last week, it would be foolish to put anything past this version of the Republican Party. “Republicans are untethering themselves from any obligation to recognize future legitimate election outcomes, which will provide the rationale to overturn them, a freedom they are also effectively in process of appropriating,” he wrote. “Cheney is insisting on a GOP future premised on a full repudiation of these tendencies, and getting punished for it.”

What are Democrats going to do about all this? Maybe nothing. The situation the Democratic Party faces at the moment is actually incredibly grim, and little of significance is happening in Congress now besides negotiations over how much smaller Biden’s infrastructure bill should be. The party’s on a trajectory toward losing the majority it’s promised to defend democracy with.

Its package of election and redistricting reforms, the For the People Act, did advance out of the Rules Committee on Tuesday. “Down the hall from us, House Republicans are plotting the demotion of a Republican member for the crime of repeating the truth: that Joe Biden is the president of the United States and that Donald Trump is lying,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said at the committee’s markup session. “Liz Cheney spoke truth to power, and for that, she’s being fired. Here in the Senate, Republicans appear content to allow the sacred right to vote to be taken away from millions on the false ground that there was fraud—something for which there is no evidence.”

But as Schumer knows, at least two members of his own caucus are also prepared to let Republicans continue their efforts. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema remain opposed to eliminating the filibuster, the only route to the act’s passage, and Manchin has signaled opposition to the bill in substance. In an interview after the Rules Committee’s vote, he suggested to ABC News’ Rachel Scott that he would instead support the narrow provisions of the John Lewis Voting Rights Acta fix addressing the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that voting rights activists have been hoping to pass in tandem with the For the People Act.

“I believe Democrats and Republicans feel very strongly about protecting the ballot boxes, allowing people to protect the right to vote, making it accessible, making it fair, and making it secure. And the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, if we apply that to all 50 states and territories, it’s something that can be doneit should be done,” he said. “It could be done bipartisan to start getting confidence back in our system.”

A failed bipartisan effort on voting rights isn’t going to build confidence in our system, but it might cost the Democratic Party the House. Post-census redistricting begins this year, and Republican state governments will attempt to erase their Trump-era losses by outdoing their successes in the last redistricting cycle 10 years ago. And as New York’s Eric Levitz noted last week, the right doesn’t even have to lean on gerrymandering to take the chamber back. “Even without gerrymandering, Republican-leaning states would be poised to add seats from population shifts alone,” he wrote. “All told, the GOP could gain as many as eight House seats in 2022, just from the redrawing of congressional maps, according to The Cook Political Report.” That question aside, the odds would be against Democrats retaining control regardless. Parties holding the White House have lost 27 House seats on average in midterm elections since World War II. The Democrats now hold the House by six.

You won’t be told so in those columns about Biden’s transformation into a latter-day FDR, or in those pieces describing how activists are grateful to be doing Zoom calls with Ron Klain, but there’s not much urgency about utilizing the majority while Democrats have it to be found anywhere beyond progressive and left mediaalthough it should be said that a piece in the Times this week did a nice job of making the fragility of that majority clear.

“More than 1,160 sitting members and members-elect have died from accidents, disease and violence since the first Congress met in 1789,” the Times’ Ian Prasad Philbrick noted. “The pandemic and the Jan. 6 Capitol uprising fueled fears that this Congress was particularly vulnerable to such deaths. But with most members vaccinated and security tightened, old age may be a bigger threat. The average age of a sitting senator is 64, and for a representative it’s 58, making this Congress one of the oldest.” Democrats in the Senate need all 50 seats to keep the chamber. Nine in the caucus now are from states where Republican governors would have free rein to fill vacancies. Losing the Senate that way even temporarily would be a catastrophic outcome for those on the outside genuinely hoping to see a Democratic legislative agenda passed. One suspects, however, there are Democrats in Congress for whom it would be a relief.